| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:27

    "on a saturday night the line extends all the way to here," motioned my friend cragin, still a good 10 steps from celeste's glass enclosed front patio. most nights begin with a wait at this popular neighborhood trattoria-reservations are not accepted-and with nearly every inch of its cramped interior filled with seating, biding time on the sidewalk is virtually a rite of passage. lucky for us, a perfectly timed monday evening visit led us right to a corner table near the wood fired oven.

    owner carmine mitroni, whose chatty presence around celeste is pleasantly unavoidable, opened this quaint neapolitan outpost seven years ago as the second in a trio of authentic italian eateries. he and chef/partner giancarlo quadalti are also behind teodora in midtown and bianca in the east village, but a heavier dose of the cuisine of campania sets celeste apart from its more romagnese-influenced counterparts. celeste is one of three italian eateries from owner carmine mitroni and chef/partner giancarlo quadalti. photo by: andrew schwartz things are kept purposefully simple here-exposed brick walls, bare wooden tables and brusquely efficient service help to focus attention on what's most important: the food. the list of fritti is a good place to start, and while the fried ricotta di bufala balls ($9) were tempting, we opted instead for carciofi fritti ($8.50). the plate consisted of three batter encrusted artichoke hearts, which were halved to expose their soft, fleshy insides. a surprising heap of crispy fried parsley lay on top and with each bite, disintegrated like cotton candy on my tongue.

    naples' most historic piece of gastronomy, the margherita pizza ($10), was the next of our five courses, and it was so chock full of fresh basil that it almost felt like i was getting a second helping of greens. only the somewhat sagging inner crust, which buckled under the weight of the san marzano tomatoes and abundant buffalo mozzarella, prevented perfect execution of queen margherita's namesake flatbread. but perfection was achieved on the ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli ($10), one of the freshly made pastas offered here.

    served precisely al dente with thick, unmelted pecorino shavings as flavorful decoration, the triangular cases of dough boasted a buttery richness that countered the salty acidity of our lemon and caper sautéed veal medallions ($16). the tender calf's meat was our only official entrée of the night, and finishing the sizeable portion was a bit too much to handle, especially with the hand-churned gelato of gino cammarata on deck.

    the brooklyn-based gelato maven uses a 1950s era manual machine to crank out celeste's daily ration of the traditional italian ice cream, with new flavors on tap all the time. a creamy, minty, cognac-infused zuppa inglese variety was our final treat of the evening ($6.50), and it took all my will power not to lick the melted remains out of the bowl. less indulgent would have been an after-dinner selection of cheeses, which carmine personally prepares from among the seventy locally aged artisanal cheeses that he hand selects and brings back from italy on his frequent trips home.

    when we departed at 10:30, the crowd had thinned and the convivial din had calmed considerably. while the staff took a long-awaited breather, i glimpsed the happy owner acting as wine taster, working to tweak his all-italian inventory. categorized by region, the affordable eight-page list is reason enough to make another trip. and so too is the rest of this intimately italian experience. -- celeste 502 amsterdam ave (bet. 84th and 85th streets) 212-874-4559 entrees: $15 - $17 cash only